485 U. S. 617
April 25, 1988
The Court was going to decide a discrimination case in the near future. In advance, the Court asked the parties to brief and argue whether the 1976 decision of Runyon v. McCrary should be overruled. Runyon v. McCrary said that even private organizations could not practice racial discrimination according to an old civil rights law. The Court noted that it specifically asks parties to reassess previous decisions from time to time, and that there’s no bar to the Court abandoning a prior interpretation of statutory law.
This order was per curiam, and 5-4. Blackmun and Stevens wrote dissents, and each had it joined by Brennan, Marshall, and the other. Blackmun said that the Runyon ruling had been relied on repeatedly, and was pretty well established and unquestioned. Those sorts of rulings are not supposed to be reexamined willy-nilly. Stevens observed that the parties had not asked for Runyon to be reconsidered, and argued that reconsidering it would prove unsettling to racial minorities who had put their trust in the ruling.
This is it: the very first decision ever that was Rehnquist-White-O’Connor-Scalia-Kennedy against Brennan-Marshall-Blackmun-Stevens. We will see this again many times from 1988 to 1990. As for the decision itself, it was a good one. If a previous ruling was wrong, it should be overruled, end of story. With some very limited exceptions, I have no patience for stare decisis or judicial restraint objections to reconsidering old rulings. Better to get it right belatedly than to boldly stand by error.